Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Noël Peirce Coward, 16 December 1899, Teddington, Middlesex, England; d 16 March 1973, Jamaica) Playwright, actor; his talent spilled over into cinema, cabaret, revue, literature, criticism; and he is still the only English songwriter to approach the wit and wisdom of Cole Porter. His first hit was 'Poor Little Rich Girl' from revue On With The Dance '23; from then on standards flowed from his piano (he could play in only three keys); 'Room With A View' '28, 'I'll See You Again' '29, 'Someday I'll Find You' '30, 'Mad About The Boy' '32 typified the Jazz Age in England. Disillusion during the Depression was captured with double-edged wit in '20th Century Blues' '31: 'Whatever crimes the proletariat commits/It can't be beastly to the children of the Ritz'. 'The Stately Homes Of England' '38 put the upper classes in context: 'We know how Caesar conquered Gaul/And how to whack a cricket ball ...' 'I've Been To A Marvellous Party' '39 caught the Bright Young Things: 'Poor Millicent wore a surrealist comb/Made of bits of mosaic from St Peter's in Rome ...' 'Mad Dogs And Englishmen (Go Out In The Mid-Day Sun)' '32 remains the definitive statement on the English abroad; the title of 'Don't Put Your Daughter On The Stage Mrs Worthington' '35 entered the language.

He worked tirelessly for Allied propaganda during WWII: 'London Pride' was a symbol of defiance during the Blitz; he played an important role in film In Which We Serve '42 (his character obviously modelled on Mountbatten, most reckless of admirals, idolized by his men); his song 'Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans' '43 was unusually vitriolic (some people took it literally, but Winston Churchill loved it). The post-war mood during years of austerity and rationing described in 'There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner' ('There are black birds over/The white cliffs of Dover'). In the mid-'50s his star seemed to wane as audiences turned to the 'kitchen sink' school of drama, but a cabaret engagement in Las Vegas was a remarkable success '54, including rewrite of Porter's 'Let's Do It' ('Famous writers in swarms do it/Somerset and all the Maughams do it'). Album Noël Coward Live In Las Vegas '55 was a superb souvenir. His plays were revived by the UK's National Theatre in mid-'60s, the first living playwright to be so honoured; he did cameo roles in films Around The World In Eighty Days '56, Our Man In Havana '59, Bunny Lake Is Missing '65, The Italian Job '69, others; 70th birthday celebrations left no doubt who The Master was. He was knighted; Ned Sherrin mounted show Cowardy Custard '72 in London, a joyous occasion. Published autobiographies Present Indicative '33, Future Indefinite '49; biography A Talent To Amuse published '69 by Sheridan Morley, also the title of '73 compilation LP. His best plays were filmed: Design For Living '34 was especially delightful, though its brittle characterization was lightened for the screen; Brief Encounter '46 is a classic English weepy. Compilations: The Master's Voice on Angel (HMV recordings 1927-53), Together With Music on DRG ('55 TV show with Mary Martin), I'll See You Again on ASV and London Pride on Happy Days, both with his dear friend Gertrude Lawrence (see her entry). He was dismissive of his own musical talent; 'How potent cheap music is,' he wrote in Private Lives: his was some of the most potent. Kenneth Tynan wrote of him: 'His triumph has been to unite two things ever disassociated in the English mind: hard work and wit.' While compiling this book we remember him saying, 'Work is more fun than fun.' He was knighted in 1970.